From High Stakes to Traffic Court: A Top Lawyer’s Unexpected Career Turn

From High Stakes to Traffic Court: A Top Lawyer's Unexpected Career Turn

Stephen Swedlow, a prominent lawyer who climbed to the top of Quinn Emanuel has made an unexpected career move by trading his lucrative partnership for a position in traffic court.

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Swedlow, 52, left Quinn Emanuel Urquhart & Sullivan last year after winning a seat as a judge in Illinois’ Cook County Bloomberg Law reports. Despite his success in landing major cases and earning millions along the way, he chose to pursue a new path in public service.

Partners at big law firms like Quinn Emanuel typically remain in their roles until retirement, enjoying substantial paychecks that rival those of professional athletes.

If they transition to the judiciary, it’s usually on the federal bench. However, Swedlow took a different route by investing nearly $1 million of his own money to serve at the lowest levels of the state’s judiciary.

Despite leading a high-stakes litigation that could potentially earn his former firm $185 million in fees, he is now making roughly the same salary as Quinn Emanuel’s first-year lawyers.

In an interview, Swedlow shared his perspective on the allure of financial goals in Big Law firms.

He explained how people often set financial targets for themselves, thinking that once they achieve a certain level of wealth, they can retire. However, he realized that this mentality leads to continually raising the bar and creating new financial goals. Swedlow decided to break this cycle and transition into public service after reaching his own target.

While Swedlow aspires to become a civil trial court judge and utilize the skills he honed in Big Law, that dream remains a few years away, if it materializes at all. Currently, he is working his way up the hierarchy, handling DUI trials and traffic violations in downtown Chicago’s Loop. Swedlow’s early months on the job were spent presiding over cases via Zoom, often handling up to 300 traffic court cases a day.

Leaving Big Law

The transition from Big Law to the judiciary surprised some of Swedlow’s former colleagues at Quinn Emanuel.

He was highly regarded by clients who appreciated his confidence and his colleagues who enjoyed his irreverent sense of humor.

Nonetheless, the demanding nature of Big Law work, including frequent travel for trials, left Swedlow with limited mental energy and time. His decision to step away was motivated by a desire to spend more quality time with his twin fifth-grader children, whom he now cooks dinner for most nights.

Swedlow’s earnings as a partner at Quinn Emanuel were significant, although he did not disclose the exact amount. However, the average partner at the firm earned over $52 million during Swedlow’s tenure. In contrast, new Cook County judges typically earn a little over $215,000 per year. Swedlow’s salary as a judge amounted to $109,000 through May, according to the Illinois State Comptroller’s website. Repaying the $950,000 he self-funded for his campaign will take him nearly five years on his current salary.

Few partners from major firms make a career change like Swedlow. He received guidance from Raymond Mitchell who had left Big Law firm Jenner & Block to become a Cook County judge, who described him as “whip smart” and a “very accomplished lawyer.” However, the financial implications often make it challenging for partners in Big Law to pursue judicial positions.

Swedlow’s recent promotion out of traffic court landed him a spot in the municipal department, where he presides over low-value civil cases such as small claims, personal injury, and evictions. Many of the cases he handles involve credit card companies seeking debt collection.

A law career change like that may be rare but it also demonstrates the need for lawyers – or anyone – to follow their passion and interests – and to be prepared to make major career decisions based on those factors.

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